The Case for Geoffrey Hill, correspondence, LRB, 1985–86

A resource for scholars of Geoffrey Hill
I acknowledge Andrew Michael Roberts’ enabling precedent (Geoffrey Hill, Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers, 2004, 110).

CONTEXT: Tom Paulin, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’, London Review of Books 7.6, 4 April 1985, 13–4, repr. ‘A Visionary Nationalist: Geoffrey Hill’, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, London: Faber and Faber, 1992, 276–84:

276: G H tends to appeal almost exclusively to an academic audience.

“: H’s title [KL] is reactionary in its implications

277: Although H’s conservative imagination endorses the cleric’s [Townsend’s] simple-minded concept of national loyalty, it is possible to read much of his verse as a protest against what Hugh Haughton terms ‘the indignity of King Log’.

“: Haughton’s fellow contributors all believe in the magical transcendence of art, and the cover of the volume expresses that archaic humanist cop-out. […] The [dustjacket] painting is clumsy but it does express how seriously H takes himself and the stupefied awe his critics feel for him.

278: the ‘Pprrpffrrpfff’ of a Leopold Bloom?

“: a collection of dull, dim essays straining to articulate they know not what. […] it is simply the product of a small group of academics who have lost all touch with an audience and society. […] There is something cosy and desperate in their yawping enterprise.

“: Assonating from one loose sentence to the next, Ricks’s mannered style preens itself in a fussily rebarbative manner – […]. There is no glimmer of a critical intelligence in this type of infantile paronomasia: […] Similarity is difference, difference is similarity – anything is like anything else, Ricks’s non-argument suggests.

279: Like most of H’s critics, Ricks takes the poet at his enormous self-estimation. […] Ricks’s arid, nimbling critical manner pretends to discover mystic complexity in pure platitude and bathos.

“: This deadly bit of trivia [‘jam-jar’] is meant to offer a final bucolic epiphany,

“: His trapped critical outlook prevents him from confronting the essentially Blut-und-Boden nature of H’s imagination –

“: This [Pearson] is Jamesian camp […]. Art is daunting, mysterious, difficult of access – the critic must manner himself into it with a great deal of oohing and ahing, and with much affected reverence for the superior mage

280–1: Różewicz has developed an austere, transparent anti-style in order to approach the subject of absolute evil and horror. H relies on a plushy series of mannered pentameters, and the result is a grisly [281] historical voyeurism which – despite Hooker’s insistence to the contrary – sounds both insular and complacent.

281: H is a parasite upon Eliot’s imagination, and any account of his work must face this frankly in order to argue the ultimate authenticity of the style.

“: H’s title [‘Idylls of the King’] is straightforwardly Tennysonian, and so is the poem’s dank, mossy texture, its stagnant vowel-music.

282: At times his evocation of the past’s ‘weightless magnificence’ wobbles slightly as H’s less-than-perfect ear skews the rhythm of the lines. Thus the rhyme ‘flight/twilight’ wrenches the natural vernacular spondee, ‘twilight’, into a fast, freakish iamb, ‘twilight’ […]. The pentameters are too monotonously definite to allow any rhythmic leeway, and the result is a false, flat note. Even so, these lines retain a certain gravid power, though in saying this I’m aware that the buried Anglican in me has a soft spot for this type of visionary mustiness.

282: Although H is endorsing the natural threat posed to collectivist society by the ‘warheads of mushrooms’, the image carries a contradictory suggestion of missile silos, of England as a nuclear province of the United States. Here it would be tempting to detect a Powellite strain in H’s conservatism,

283: [Robinson] baulks at drawing any conclusions from this conjunction of Black Country powers.

“: Does Edwards never switch on Channel 4? Clearly not, or he would realize that British society is not just composed of those neo-Christians Empson so despised.

“: Although Haughton appears not to have entirely lost his faith in the work, he lacks that reverential gullibility which so mars the other essays, […] he describes [… the poems’] disabling evocations of a contradictory ‘lost kingdom’. […] H’s sense of tradition is revealed as bogus because his poetic language originates with the Victorians and ‘can be said to be less their inheritance than their legacy’.

284: It seems to me that this critical enterprise aims to prop up a shabby and reactionary hegemony, and that Haughton – he is clearly radical and egalitarian – ought to have refused to participate in it. Still, he […] is clearly troubled by the authoritarian imagination H’s admirers celebrate.

‘Acknowledgements’, 295: in the case of my discussion of G H I have retained the error which provoked a lengthy correspondence in the [LRB].

Craig Raine, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 2 May 1985, 4.

Martin Dodsworth and E. E. Duncan-Jones, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letters), LRB, 23 May 1985, 4.

Tom Paulin, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 6 June 1985, 4.

Craig Raine, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 20 June 1985, 4.

Martin Dodsworth, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 18 July 1985, 4.

Tom Paulin, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 1 August 1985, 4.

Martin Dodsworth, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 5 September 1985, 4.

John Lucas, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 3 October 1985, 4.

Eric Griffiths and Martin Dodsworth, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letters), LRB, 7 November 1985, 4.

John Lucas, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 5 December 1985, 4–5.

Eric Griffiths, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 6 February 1986, 4.

BONUS CONTEXT 1: David Norbrook, ‘Shaggy Fellows’, London Review of Books 9.13, 9 July 1987, 22–3:

22: In the opposing camp, Tom Paulin provoked an indignant response in this journal in 1985 when he indicted H for his reactionary and derivative ‘kitsch feudalism’. H’s admirers responded with extreme defensiveness, representing Paulin’s intrusion of politics into the realm of culture as outrageous vandalism, and arguing that, since he speaks with an Irish accent, he has no right to pronounce upon English poetry. But can a better case be made for H?

“: His poetry is concerned with authority of all kinds, but perhaps above all with the authority of the author.

“: in many earlier poems, he aims rather mechanically for an optimal ambiguity count –

“: And yet he adopts a more critical and ironic view of traditional culture than Paulin implies.

“: [CP] could be said to illustrate the collusion of civilisation with barbarism.

“: Such a vision of universal corruption is politically ambiguous:

“: Paradoxically, H’s obsession with the moral responsibilities of writing threatens to trivialize the issues: […]. An obsession with ethics can be a way of excluding politics, and heaping guilt on poetry’s head may have its own complacency: if poets can be condemned for not being Jesus Christ, one must assume that they are pretty important people.

“: a demystificatory, iconoclastic vein in H’s work.

“: [Hart’s] method is not conducive to forceful overall argument, or to a recognition of weaknesses as well as strengths: the tone tends to be reverential. […] There are too many banalities:

“: [Bloom’s] emphasis is on H’s toughness as a counter to the wimpish utopianism of ‘Marxists and assorted contemporary shamans’.

“: H’s vein of black, satirical comedy at the expense of past masters. His frequent descriptions of this comedy as ‘hilarious’ may arouse misleading expectations, but H’s wit has been underplayed by critics and [23] is a constant counter to the temptations of pomposity.

23: Some readers have condemned the Keatsian or Tennysonian lushness of these sonnets, but H has reworked that idiom in the light of a very different historical and political consciousness, so that the registers jar with each other.

“: H’s poetry would be blander if the acknowledgment of barbarism were not accompanied by powerful celebrations of the monuments of culture.

“: But something is going wrong when H ends up sounding like Shirley Williams: if he has spoken of poems as presenting both terms in an antiphonal ‘drama of reason’, this implies a process, rather than a final product with a detachable political moral.

“: Moreover, it can be questioned whether H really does give opposing voices equal weight. Ambiguity gains its air of even-handedness by first making a set of binary oppositions that are bound to prejudge the issue.

“: But his characteristic strategy is to raise such doubts and then pass on without having fully assimilated them.

“: H’s historical imagination in the end responds more keenly to agrarian rhythms and Tory myths of unity than to the dissenting currents in British history. He is more at home in subverting Tennyson than in accommodating Clough.

“: Again, one can speak of a political ambivalence which is limited in range.

“: A charitable view of the over-literary clumsiness to which Paulin objects, a clumsiness which occurs quite often in the Péguy poem – ‘Landscape is like revelation’ – would be that H is registering resistance to the easy naturalisation of metaphor.

“: The structure of Péguy oscillates, without final stable resolution, between poles of affirmation and satire. Hart draws attention to H’s difficulty in ending the Péguy poem: his iconoclastic vein resists traditional closures. In this sense, his poem deconstructs its own organicism.

“: H retains, for all his iconoclasm, a fastidious distaste for modernity. To the extent that the iconoclast is defined by the images he tries to break, H’s poetry remains a symptom of the problem it so intensely seeks to diagnose.

BONUS CONTEXT 2: John Lucas, ‘Accidents of Language’, London Review of Books 5.20, 3 November 1983, 16, repr. Starting to Explain, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2003, 276–82.

276: [‘Our Word’] so closely argued that it’s almost impossible to tease out individual threads without running the risk of damaging the entire fabric.

“: [the world] has its own claims, almost its own aggressions,

277: The play of this syntax has about it an untiring self-consciousness that is positively Jamesian. The ‘one’ who speaks does so on behalf of the generality of poets, is any poet.

“: The almost inexhaustible tact of this sentence is typical of the entire essay and might, I suppose, be a mere matter of tactics:

“: it is anti-Arnoldian.

278: History is not merely understood through language, history is language.

“: distinctively post-modern attitude to the world

280: in this new poem it often feels as though he is out for blood. In view of the material he confronts, his rejection of a melioristic, liberal reading of history is proper enough: less proper is what occasionally feels most like a glowering, unlovely egotism, a pedagogy that lacks, say, Yeats’s generous understanding of the motley history forces all of us wear [sic].

“: the poem’s presiding tone is more frequently mandarin, abrasive or – well, schoolmasterly.

281: There is a heavy prosaicism about these lines which occurs elsewhere in the poem, which its rhythms reinforce, and which I dislike because of the way it advertises its seriousness. It too clearly has designs on the reader, as do the obtrusive half-echoes of Tate and Eliot. It is demanding to be taken as important, but ends up seeming merely self-important.

“: I have to say that as far as I am concerned the game seems solipsistic, arbitrary and tiresome. Besides, I cannot note how sweetness devours sorrow in English, because it doesn’t.

“: deliberately contains stylistic graces within a poem that strives for what he presumably regards as more important, more graceless effects.

282: At all events, the strategy of H’s poem seems to be deliberately pyrrhic.

Update: This is published in far more usable form here – all the letters happily are viewable even by non-subscribers.